Five Questions With Cannes PR Lions Jury President John Clinton

'Debate Has Been Around Where Did Idea Come From'

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Edelman's John Clinton
Edelman's John Clinton Credit: Courtesy of John Clinton

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity has appointed John Clinton, chair, Canada and North American head of creative and content at Edelman to serve as the 2016 jury president for the Cannes PR Lions.

While the PR contest, which was added to the festival in 2009, is receiving more submissions from PR agencies than in the past, it's still largely being dominated by ad agencies. In an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Clinton talks about his role as the PR Lions jury president and some of his objectives during this year's festival.

You have an interesting mix of expertise, having led Grey Worldwide Canada and J. Walter Thompson Canada earlier in your career. How will your background influence the way you look at entries?

I've been lucky because I've worked in the advertising business and I also worked in publishing and digital publishing and then moved into PR. If you think of the commonality of all that, it's storytelling and to be able to draw on all three of those businesses and look at storytelling through those eyes will be really neat.

What do you anticipate to be your biggest challenges?

I've never been the president of a jury before, but I think the biggest challenge is keeping things on the rails. You have 21 jurors and over 2,000 pieces of work, so you have a lot of work to get through and you have to be able to discuss everything and give everything a fair chance and be able to make sure that you come to the proper conclusions.

Over the last few years, most of the awards have been won by advertising agencies. How will you handle that this year?

The debate has always been around where did the idea come from? And I think you can look at this two ways. In reality, sometimes PR companies are hired to amplify things, and if they do an extraordinary job amplifying somebody else's idea, then they should be rewarded for that. More and more, like with Edelman last year in the case with Adobe's Photoshop "Murder Mystery," the PR company is coming up with the idea, executing it and amplifying it. So you're seeing a more holistic approach to it. You still see it both ways, but you're starting to see more where the PR company is responsible for both the idea and the activation or execution.

The PR Lions have been a bit overlooked and overshadowed by the other categories in the festival. How can the PR contest get a bigger presence?

It all depends on the work. The more extraordinary the work, the more it'll get amplified. What's tended to be at the top of the pyramid is the advertising work and the film work. It used to all be about the 30- or 60-second TV commercial, and you've seen it shifting it away from that now. And when you look at the work, it's hard to tell what the origins are. If you look at something like [Ogilvy & Mather's] Tweeting Pothole last year – that never had any media behind it, so was that an ad campaign, a PR campaign, a digital campaign? What was that?

At the end of the festival, what do you want to have taken away from your experience?

I want to be inspired. When I went last year and the other times I've been, you just come away with this great sense of "Wow, I want to be doing work like that." And this year to be able to spend so much time talking about great work with people and really sifting out the difference between what's good work and what's amazing work is excites me the most. I figure you come away so inspired – probably exhausted too – but so inspired. Cannes is such a great honor. It's the biggest festival of creativity in the world and to be able to go to that and meet people from around the world and see all this amazing work is pretty exciting.

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